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Daphne Merkin

Mother of All Surrogates

My attachment to the intricate, fiercely inconsistent woman who is my mother has always been shot through with ambivalence. It is as if she were a literal, flesh-and-blood embodiment of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein's concept of the good versus bad breast, crooning a paradoxical lullaby of maternal acceptance and rejection in one voice. I have spent much of my life (and an astonishing number of therapeutic hours) trying to pull away from this siren song, only to be drawn back again to her mesmerizing contrapuntal music. A card she sent on my 50th birthday testifies to the duration of this push-pull dynamic, bearing as it does one of her characteristically equivocal statements, written in her straight, unflowery script: "Here is hoping good things will happen to you in the coming year — and if cutting me out of your life is one of them, so be it — sadly." Although my mother is in some ways the love of my life, our relationship has always played around a theme of insufficiency, of deprivation hovering in the wings of a promised maternal largess.

So it was in keeping with this motif that I found myself in her bedroom recently, arguing with her about how much I stood to inherit. My once-invincible mother no longer has the strength to stand up on her own. At 86, she has been weakened by cancer, made into an unsettlingly frail semblance of her former self. I have brought her several fetishized (hence overpriced) commodities — a Diptyque candle, a box of Teuscher chocolates — as small bedside offerings, tokens of filial devotion. We have been talking amiably about life post-her-death, when my mother mentions her hope that her six complicated and not entirely harmonious children will get along in the future. The very mention of my siblings, those other claimants on her affection and fortune, darkens the atmosphere with implicit accusations. How much does she love me? What am I worth? Whom does she love the most?


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The New York Times Magazine | May 14, 2006


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